Controversy and Craft: On Dave Eggers, Part 1

by K.M. Zahrt

For some reason, Dave Eggers tends to attract controversy. With the publication of Eggers’ latest novel, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, on June 17, 2014, the question is, what will be the controversy this time? In this four-part series, we will take a look at Eggers’ history with controversy and conclude with a review of his new novel.

Dave Eggers is a multiple bestselling author, the founder of the independent publishing company, McSweeney’s, and the founder of 826 Valencia, a literacy tutoring center in San Francisco that has grown into a chain, including 826michigan on Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. 826michigan is “a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students aged 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” 826michigan is a great organization worthy of your volunteer time and/or your charitable giving, and for that, I’ll knight Eggers as an honorary Michigander.

Eggers’ 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, stretches the boundaries of non-fiction, not unlike his pioneering predecessors, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. He utilizes fantasy, time compressions, and other literary devices in order to write a more readable non-fictional narrative. In this way, the linear details of his history take a backseat to the creation of a more enjoyable text. The book has been wildly popular — a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize even — and has sparked numerous discussions about the scope of the memoir/creative non-fiction genre. But, the real controversies would be yet to come.

Toward the end of the same decade, Eggers would again walk a blurred line between fiction and non-fiction. What is the What (2006) and Zeitoun (2009) both feature narratives centered around the experiences of real men. What is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who escapes the war-torn region to land in the United States as one of the “Lost Boys.” Zeitoun is the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans-based Muslim who struggles to survive Hurricane Katrina amidst post-9/11 prejudice.

The stories are similar in style and scope; however, What is the What is billed as fiction with the subtitle “The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng,” and Zeitoun is billed as non-fiction. For What is the What, Deng explains in the preface that he and Eggers “collaborated to tell [his] story,” and Eggers “created this work of art.” Many readers have been confused by this trans-genre book. To quote Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, from 30 Rock, “What the what?” Exactly.

The problems with Zeitoun, unfortunately, have gone beyond genre labeling theories. In 2012, three years after the successful release of the book, Abdulrahman Zeitoun attracted the public’s attention as a result of serious criminal misconduct: “On November 8th, a state grand jury in Orleans Parish indicted Zeitoun for allegedly trying to kill Ms. Zeitoun and then ordering a hit on her from behind bars” (Patterson, 2012, par. 10). Naturally, this brought the lovable protagonist from Eggers’ book into question: Did Eggers manipulate his depiction of Zeitoun to fit a pre-conceived narrative? In the book, “Zeitoun is a heroic and selfless creation, kind and gentle, and his detainment by the authorities makes for a beautiful tale of injustice. But now a far more complex Zeitoun has walked off the page, without a political and moral agenda, borderless and uncontainable” (par. 16). Although Ms. Zeitoun spoke out in Eggers’ defense, stating the “depiction was accurate at the time, but that her husband had subsequently become angrier and more violent, and his Islamic views more radical” (par. 14), this book will likely be tainted with the scent of inaccuracy, or at least uncertainty, from now on.

Ironically, it seems that, had Zeitoun also been labeled as fiction in spite of the genre-confusion surrounding What is the What, Eggers would’ve had a lot less trouble on his hands.

Join us tomorrow for Part 2. We’ll take a look at the controversy surrounding one of Dave Egger’s recent fiction publications.

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